The best mental and physical planning goes out the window when 15,000 screaming fans greet swimmers as they get on the blocks.
Welcome to the meet of madness known as the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. You’re ready or you’re not.
“To me, it sounds like there’s no way to really prepare for it,” said Fossil Ridge junior Zoe Bartel, one of eight locals who qualified for the trials starting Sunday and running through July 3 in Omaha. “You just go in and get the feel, and either you do really well under the pressure or you kind of crash.”
The trials at the CenturyLink Center are the selection process for the Olympic team that will compete in the Rio Olympics in August.
With finals on national TV and all heats available to watch online, it’s the premier meet in the country and the second-biggest race in which an American can compete.
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The pinnacle, of course, is the Olympics.
Bartel is the highest seeded local, placed 17th in the 100-meter breaststroke. She will be joined at the trials by Fossil Ridge classmates Bayley Stewart (junior), Bailey Kovac (senior) and Coleen Gillilan (sophomore). Fossil Ridge graduate and Auburn sophomore Bailey Nero, Fort Collins grad and TCU freshman Elise Forzley and Fort Collins grad and Texas sophomore Max Holter are also competing. Those seven are all current or former Fort Collins Area Swim (FAST) team members. The club has the most representatives at the trials of any team in Colorado.
Also qualified is Windsor High School senior and Loveland Swim Club member Morgan Friesen.
Will any of the eight make the Olympics? Probably not, but the experience is so much more than that.
Only the top two from each race qualify for Rio, but the chance to swim with the best of the best from around the country is something special.
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“It was kind of a mind-blowing experience,” said Nero, who is the only one with trials experience, swimming in the 2012 meet. “It’s definitely a lot more intimidating. You walk out, and it’s crazy how many people are watching. It makes you realize you’re in that top category of swimming.”
Nero, who won 14 individual and relay state titles at Fossil Ridge, is seeded 23rd in the 100 butterfly with hopes to make at least the top 16, with the top eight a reachable goal.
The meet puts the locals in the same pools as the truly elite of the sport. Stewart is competing in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, with Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin the tops in those races. Seedings mean they won’t share the same prelim heats, but just being in that company will be valuable.
“I’m just looking forward to the experience. I want to see the people who make the Olympics and their reactions,” Bartel said. “It’s a little shocking at first to see them walking around the deck, then you’re like, ‘Oh, this is just a regular meet for them like it is for me.’”
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The value gained will be hard to measure but invaluable. The locals will pick up mental tips from others, see how they react in a big-time atmosphere and for those in high school get a chance to talk with college athletes as they start to pick their next school.
If they’re lucky it’s more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The time has come. Fort Collins is ready for the big stage in U.S. swimming.
“I’m getting a little nervous. It’s my first time, and I don’t really know what to expect. Last time the Olympics rolled around I didn’t even know what trials was,” said Kovac, who will swim the 200 breaststroke. “Now I’m going, and it’s crazy to think I’m going to such a huge meet. It’s going to be awesome.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.
U.S. Olympic Swim Trials
When: June 26-July 3 at CenturyLink Center in Omaha
Watch: Prelims begin at 9 a.m. each day and can be seen on the NBC Sports app. Finals air daily at 6 p.m. on NBC. Qualifying heats air daily on NBC Sports Network.
Zoe Bartel (Fossil Ridge), 17th in 100 breaststroke, 31st in 200 breaststroke, 73rd in 200 IM
Bailey Kovac (Fossil Ridge), 124th in 200 breaststroke
Coleen Gillilan (Fossil Ridge), 91st in 100 butterfly
Bayley Stewart (Fossil Ridge), 97th in 100 backstroke, 69th in 200 backstroke
Bailey Nero (Auburn, via Fossil Ridge), 23rd in 100 butterfly, 58th in 200 butterfly, 138th in 400 IM
Elise Forzley (TCU, via Fort Collins), 128th in 200 backstroke
Morgan Friesen (Windsor), 93rd in 100 breaststroke, 66th in 200 breaststroke
Max Holter (Texas, via Fort Collins), 47th in 100 butterfly, 54th in 200 butterfly
More: Visit usaswimming.org/trials for heat sheets, timing of races